Romans 13:1 “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God..”
Did you vote last week in the election of that person who will now represent you for the next four years in the European Parliament? Did you also notice that there was a candidate standing for the Christian Party and actually about 240 people from this county voted for him compared to the 2,300 who voted for the winning Conservative candidate? Do you think Christians should vote? Do you think there should be a Christian Party? Again, let me ask you whether in the last month your respect for politicians in London has grown or diminished? Do you think that many of them are dishonourable members of the House of Commons? Do you think that their conduct in claiming ‘job expenses’ to pay for such luxuries as flat large screen TV sets, or for such basics as food, or even claiming for a five pound note one M.P. put in a collection plate for old soldiers has shriveled our estimation of all elected members as well as the office they hold as British law-makers? Do you think that they have become cunning in getting round the law when they are our nation’s law-makers? In other words, they pass the laws which could result in our losing our possessions or our liberty if we should break those laws. Are these men and women fit to be passing laws? If your father or son or any of the members of your family happens to be a Member of Parliament then you will already be defensive at my questions and I am going to lose your interest and trust in my preaching today. “They are not all like that,” you protest – quite correctly.
When you read that during the last months two grandparents were forbidden by governing authorities to adopt their own grandchildren at the death of these kids’ parents and that instead those children were given – by these governing authorities – to a couple of homosexuals for them to raise. I ask you did that disturb you deeply and make you quite angry. Yet this is one of the ways that our governing authorities, of whom Paul is speaking here in our passage, is operating even as I speak. Don’t you think it would be strange if the New Testament didn’t give us some elementary guidelines about rulers and governing authorities and what our response to them should be?
1. THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM THIS TEACHING IS RELEVANT.
i] It was certainly essential to the people of the 1st century. Let me put this section in its New Testament context because Romans chapter thirteen is not coming out of a vacuum or some religious debating society. For example, when Paul was later in prison in Rome he wrote a letter from Rome to Philippi and at the end of the letter he sent them greetings, “All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Phils. 4:22). In other words, there were people working for Caesar who had become Christians; they were members of this congregation in Rome. There were soldiers whose duties included guarding Paul; they were chained to him for four hours spans of duty. They had questioned him and heard the gospel through him and the Christian message had spread among the other soldiers in the Imperial palace. Don’t you think that in Rome, of all places in the world, Christians were asking the question whether they could continue to be soldiers or civil servants working for Caesar (who was soon to be Nero)? Was it possible for them to be consistent Christians? Wouldn’t most of the Christians working for the Emperor long to hear Paul telling them that they should stay or quit? Maybe for many in the congregation in Rome this was the most pressing question of all and when this letter was read out they were anxious for his help. But do you see the wise psychology of the apostle, that first of all he sets out the gospel comprehensively in the memorable opening eleven chapters of this epistle and he compels them to consider God’s grace in salvation first of all? Surely the crucial thing you have to do when considering some big do or die decision in your life is this very thing, to first seek to fill your mind with God. That gets everything in perspective. But in addition to the eleven chapters of theology Paul then gives them this sublime ethic in chapter 12 telling them how they are to live their personal lives, and only after all that has been weighed up does Paul deal with their burning question, what is the relation of the Christian to the powers that be.
So this question was important in Rome from the perspective of converted soldiers and civil servants working for the emperor. However, there was another group in the congregation anxious to have some help on this subject and that is the large number of converted Jews there. We are told in the book of Acts chapter eighteen and verse two that the emperor Claudius had “commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome.” What was this all about? This letter to the Romans was written in the year 55 and this expulsion had occurred a few years earlier and it was still having an impact on Jewish life in Rome. Why had the emperor Claudius said, “I Claudius decree all Jews leave Rome?” Was this retaliation because of a Jewish uprising? Were the Jews considered revolutionary and threatening? “Get out of Rome!” they’d been told. Think of such a disruption, thousands of Jews, old and young, having to leave homes, businesses and education to become refugees. In the mind of the authorities Christianity was associated with Judaism, a sort of sect of Judaism, and any rebellious attitudes of the Jews would be attributed immediately to the Christians. What should be the attitude of the converted Jews in the Roman congregation to governing authorities throwing their weight
around and disrupting their lives?
The issue for Christian Jews and Gentiles is their view of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who claims that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. The confession we make that ‘Jesus is Lord!’ is a personal declaration, yes, but it is also a political statement. Christ’s Lordship trumps Caesar’s lordship; he comes first, and that was why Jesus was killed. The crowds intimidated Pontius Pilate with the words, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’ whilst those followers of Jesus Christ did have another king. They were always open to the charge of being subversive.
So we can all understand why this question has to be dealt with by the apostle can’t we? He and Peter and even the Lord Jesus deal with the disciples’ relationship to Caesar in other places in the New Testament. You can see how important it is. For example, in his first letter to Timothy and in the opening words of the second chapter he returns to this theme: “I urge, then, first of all, 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” Again, when he is writing to Titus at the beginning of the third chapter of that letter he writes this: “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.” The apostle Peter has to do the same in his first epistle and in the second chapter; “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.” (I Peter 2:13&14). Or you remember when Jesus as asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar he told his questioner to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s. So this question of the relationship of the new Christian church to Caesar was a burning issue in the first century
ii] It is also relevant to people of the 21st century. I read a headline this week that said that 100 million Christians are suffering persecution this year. In Paul’s letter to the Romans and the thirteenth chapter the theme of the Christian and the state is most comprehensively examined in the whole of the Bible. It is the locus classicus of Scripture on this subject. During the 20th century with its terrible wars, its conflicts and its rise of tyrannies Christian leaders and theologians in Europe have needed to pour over these verses and understand them thoroughly. So did preachers in emerging countries as they came out from colonial rule often through conflict against occupying powers or even by a civil war.
We know that Paul was someone who had suffered again and again at the hands of the authorities and he was the perfect kind of teacher, both in his role as an apostle of Jesus Christ and from his own experience, to tell them what they were to do regarding the imperial power of Rome. Paul is going to tell the congregation that the magistrate “does not bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:4), in other words it wasn’t just a ceremonial sword like the ceremonial mace. Caesar meant business; he had the key to a prison cell and the right to put a criminal in jail perhaps for years. These Christians were all too familiar with that fact because faithful servants of Jesus Christ were being killed all the day long with that very sword. What injuries Christians might suffer, what injustices might happen to them through civil magistrates who imprison Christians, putting them in the stocks or condemning them to a brutal death.
So here is this theme of the Christian and his members of parliament and his government. In the providence of God it is before us now and you must consider it. You protest saying that you want to hear about the Lord Jesus, and so do I, but we shall learn of him and how we are to serve him better as we consider this brief chapter. We shall become better Christians through studying it. The immediate context is the preceding chapter and Paul telling us that we are to do God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will” (v.2). So what is the will of God for us and what is our relationship with Caesar and his power over us? Paul also tells us in that preceding chapter that we are “not to be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world” (v.2). Doesn’t that put us on a collision course with our secular society? Shouldn’t that make us separatists? On the other hand aren’t we also told in the New Testament to ‘become all things to all men’? How do we know what to do? We obviously have to adapt to the culture in which we live. Every missionary has to do that. So do we support Caesar or not? When James Patton sailed to the New Hebrides in the Pacific did he submit to the cannibal chief the moment he arrived? What can we learn from Romans chapter thirteen? It is really immensely relevant to us all. Let us press on.
- GOVERNING AUTHORITIES ARE ESTABLISHED BY GOD.
That is the first and clearest point Paul can make; “For there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (v.1). As Joel Beeke has said, “God has established the purpose of government. That purpose is both positive and negative. Positively, before the fall, Adam was given the assignment to name the animals, steward the creation, and exercise dominion. In a social context in our day, it means someone has to decide whether we drive on the right side of the road or the left side, when and where to build roads and set up traffic lights to hold us up, and other public infrastructure, etc. Government must reflect the orderly character and personality of God. Though God himself keeps the planets and stars in alignment in his providential rule, he has delegated to man as his image-bearer some aspects of that responsibility of order.
“Negatively, the purpose of government is rooted in man’s sin. Prior to the fall, the family was the only social institution required to retain peaceable order among men. After the fall, sin and our need to live to God’s glory required two additional social institutions: a religious institution that we call ‘the church’ – which deals primarily with our relationship to God – and a civil institution that we call the state or government – which deals with our relationship as sinners to other sinners. The state is called to regulate criminal behaviour among men. Things such as murder, lying, and cheating require a government to maintain moral order among men. The state is to superintend especially man’s violations of the fifth through the ninth commandments in his relation to other people. The state must maintain civil justice; it must reflect the righteousness and justice of the throne of God himself.” (January 2009, Banner of Sovereign Grace and Truth, p. 4)
So God established government and his authority lies behind this office. This includes unbelieving rulers as well as Christian rulers because the Bible presents to us wicked kings as men whom God guided into office. For example, Jeroboam was one of the most wicked kings of Israel, and 1 Kings 12:15 describes the intrigue that put him in power like this: “It was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord.” Again, Nebuchadnezzar was the pagan Babylonian king who had destroyed Jerusalem, but in Jeremiah 27:6 God says,
“Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant.” God calls the pagan Nebuchadnezzar his ‘servant.’ This is the same term that we find in our text in verse 4, “For he is God’s servant.” God can set up the basest of men as an authority if it pleases him. Then what a judgment on a nation that can be. Think of Hitler and Germany; Stalin over Russia; Mao’s rule over China.
Then the Roman Pontius Pilate is a very striking example of an authority that was established by God. He is the ruler who above all other rulers would not reward good behaviour. Rather Pilate punished the only perfect man whoever lived. When Pilate said to Jesus, “Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and I also authority to crucify you?” Then Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10). So the authorities of Romans 13:1 established by God include such men as Jeroboam, Nebuchadnezzar and Pontius Pilate. I am saying that Paul is teaching that all authorities – government, magistrates, police, armed services, prisons, tax officials – all authorities have been divinely established. In other words, they all derive their origin, and their right, and their power to take away a man’s liberty or possessions or his life from the living God himself not from their own I.Q or brute force or their bribery and corruption. The apostle knew from Daniel 2:21 that “[God] removes kings and sets up kings” – all kings. They are all under his control. He puts them into office and he takes them out of office. So the answer is yes, Romans 13 applies to all rulers good and bad. “For there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
There is one powerful verse affirming the fact that God is actively involved in establishing these men in places of authority, I mean that God is hands on in this work. We find it in Psalm 75 and verses six and seven, “No-one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.” So each one of us may vote, and we may choose a certain candidate and reject others, but behind our choices is the God who creates the spirit of an age either in judgment or in blessing. Sometimes it is hard to know if a man is for a nation’s blessing or curse. It is God who stands high above the democratic ballot boxes of the USA; he stands above such a tyranny as North Korea’s, and he stands above today’s power struggles in British politics. He brings one down and he exalts another. God is involved in the nations of the world.
He has been involved in the history of the British Isles. God has blessed us with some outstanding monarchs like Henry V, Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, William of Orange, Queen Victoria, George VI and our present queen. It was God who raised up William Tyndale, and Francis Drake, and Captain Cooke, and Admiral Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington, and General Gordon. Through men such as these the nation was made a land of hope and glory. They were of course all flawed men, but they were also people of incredible energy and self-discipline and courage and ability. That means that as the Second World War began God did not merely establish a ‘Prime Ministry’ in Britain; he did more than create the office. He raised up one particular man. I am saying that I believe in a special providence so that Winston Churchill came to power by the hand of God.
However, let me affirm that so did Clement Attlee, and Winston Churchill again, and Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home, and Harold Wilson, and Edward Heath, and Harold Wilson again, and Jim Callaghan, and Margaret Thatcher, and John Major, and Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown. The authority they all exercised during their tenures as prime ministers was given to them by God. The office they held was the divinely created office, yes, but a few of them were also particularly gifted individuals holding that office, and to the God who gives intelligence and leadership and a conscience and wisdom and affections they will have to answer for all they do. They are those who have been given much, and so much will be required of them.
3. THROUGH THE PEOPLE WHOM GOD HAS ESTABLISHED HE MAINTAINS CIVIL GOVERNMENT THROUGHOUT THE NATIONS.
Now this word ‘authorities’ is very broad. It means ‘right’ or ‘privilege.’ An authority is anyone who has a right to do something. If your job gives you the right to make certain decisions then when you are on the job you are an ‘authority.’ An authority is anyone who has the right to make decisions that directly affect the lives of others. In the broadest sense all of us live in two relationships at the same time. We exercise authority in certain areas, and then we are under authority in other areas. You may be a father and thus the head of your home, but when you walk into your office you are the one who is under the authority of your boss. You may be a teacher and thus you are the authority in your classroom, but you are also under the authority of the headmaster and the board of education. You are in authority and you are under authority, and all authority is to be respected. Honour your father and your mother. They have authority over you while you live under their roof. In a place of work servants are to submit to their masters. In the church you are to “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebs. 13:17). Now you may have an inadequate boss, and an inconsistent father and an uneloquent preacher, but each of them has an office which has been appointed by God.
People do not realise that the living God is the one behind the police, and the army, and the many layers of government, and the authority of teachers in school – and how feeble that honour and sense of respect is today. Yet none of them has ultimate and final authority. That’s what verse one means when it says, “for there is no authority except that which God has established.” There are not some very powerful and notorious men in the world who operate outside the control and power of God, whom God spectates but he cannot touch at all. We must not imagine that there are such mavericks float around exercising power over people and nations as they choose – that they are the untouchables, utterly autonomous and independent of God, Islamic rulers, tyrants, Marxist despots, heads of secret militant organizations, organizers of vast conspiracies, the illuminati – all independent of Almighty God! No. No such men exist who are acting outside of God’s authority. It is God who has established all authorities. A ruler is not God. Caesar is not God. God alone is God. God transcends kings and presidents and uses them for his own purposes. So the transcendent authority that God has over our rulers is the great reason why you must submit to them, and submit you must because in that honour you give to your nation you are actually giving your submission to the Lord Jesus for God’s sake. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). The one we call Lord is the only risen exalted powerful Lord Jesus, and he is King of kings, the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. In other words, keeping the speed limit is Christian worship. Paying taxes is money we are giving to our Lord’s appointed representatives. Praying for our rulers is as important as praying for the poor of the world.
Paul wrote Romans chapter 13 knowing that Caesar’s spies wo
uld certainly read it and pass it on. The apostle was aware that his letter would find its way into Caesar’s palace and the civil authorities would read it. Paul wanted them to understand two truths, that we are not out to overthrow the empire in a revolution when we claim that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. Christians submit to laws, and pay taxes, and show respect, and do good in the community. “Leave us alone,” the letter is subtly saying, “We are not revolutionaries against your throne. We are harmless lovers of hurting sinful people. We will do much in your empire. We submit to Caesar.” That is the first thing he is saying, but then Paul wants them to see something else, that the Christian does believe that the authority of Caesar is based on God’s sovereignty. “There is no authority except that which God has established” (v.1). Listen to those words through Caesar’s ears. He might Read them thinking that they mean that God was backing his authority. However, it is a powerful statement to the effect that Caesar is not God. He is not absolute. He does not have primary power. He is not in control. God is in control. Caesar’s heart is in God’s hands. Caesar lives and moves and has his being in our Lord. Caesar is going to answer to God. Of course I am putting in those words. I am saying it more starkly than Paul does here. He is more subtle and sensitive for the sake of the congregation and for the sake of winning the rulers of Rome to becoming more sympathetic towards Christians. That is very important.
I can quote you an illustration of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his sermons on this chapter. This is what he says; “I shall never forget what I was told soon after the end of the last war  by that man of God, Professor Kish of Hungary, the great anatomist, who had come over to Britain. When I met him, he told me a most interesting thing that had happened in Russia during the war. I remembered reading in the newspapers that Stalin had said that Christians were not to be persecuted and molested as they had been, that there was to be some relaxation of the laws against them, and I asked Professor Kish about this. He, with his knowledge of Russia and of Russian soldiers [Hungary, of course, is near to Russia], was able to give me the full explanation. It was this. At that time Russia was in a desperate position, urgently needing the hard work of every man and woman, and reports kept reaching Stalin – these were observations from the commissars – that the best and the most reliable workers in the factories were these odd people who called themselves Christians. The Christians were doing what the state commanded them to do, and doing it better than anybody else. And what happened? Well, they received Stalin’s praise, exactly as Paul says: ‘Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.’ The laws against them were relaxed – which is a form of giving praise. So they had that encouragement simply because they were being obedient to the laws” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Romans Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, Banner of Truth, 2002, pp. 42&43).
We long to grow in number and influence so that our law-makers have to notice and the laws they pass then become more humane, that they protect the vulnerable, the unborn child, the people with learning difficulties, and the elderly. We pay our taxes; we keep the laws; we pray for the government. Then let the government seriously listen to what we have to say about what is true and what is right and wrong.
14th June 2009 GEOFF THOMAS