NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson I)
Verse 1: Every person must obey governing authorities. There is no administration unit that is not authorized by God. And all those who administrate now were given the power to do so by God.
From the opening salutation of the letter to the Roman church, Paul has discussed matters that are mainly inside the church. His focus has been mainly on the newly grafted Gentile branch into the Holy Olive Tree of Israel and how they should get along together as Christians. But now he steps outside the sanctuary so he can instruct them on how they should behave and treat the secular society in which they live. It is Paul’s concern that they not live oblivious to the things around them, neither should they become so involved in the affairs of this world that it impedes their Christian mission.
Paul does not advocate the irrational here, he is speaking of government, although none were favorable to Christianity during his time. Nevertheless, a government is necessary to prevent lawlessness and chaos; to provide the ultimate authority for direction and justice. However, when you are asked or forced to do, say, or transgress against God’s Word, then rulers cease to govern according to the authority God has given them and become dictators, thereby, no longer a valid government in God’s eyes. But at the same time, there is no prohibition for Christians to participate in government when they are doing God’s will. After all, Joseph was second in command in Egypt; David and Solomon were kings; Isaiah was a member of the royal family; Daniel was an important figure in the realm of Nebuchadnezzar; and when Christ comes back to rule and reign, He will be the KING of kings.
But not all Jews were in favor of such close interaction between the church and government. In the writings of the Jewish Rabbis, they told their students to love work, reject mastery over others, and avoid letting the government control you.1 And in the same document, we also read where people were warned to be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own purposes. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person in the time of their distress.2 Of course, after what the Jews went through under the Romans in Paul’s day and later the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, we can understand why they would be leery of trusting any government.
We also know that godless governments, like Babylon, were often called prostitutes.3 That’s why this story we find in the Jewish Talmud is very intriguing. One Rabbi told how he was once walking in the upper-market in the city of Sepphoris4 when he encountered one of the disciples of Yeshua the Nazarene. His name was Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah.5 During their conversation, Jacob asked him, isn’t it written in your Torah that you should never give the same amount it takes to hire a prostitute to the Temple treasury?6 Instead, contribute it to the construction of a retirement home for the High Priest.7 The Rabbi says that he did not answer Jacob. So Jacob said to him that this is what he was taught by Jesus the Nazarene. Jacob said that Jesus also taught them that godless governments were assembled for the same price it takes to hire a prostitute, and for the same amount they will disband and go back to where they came from;8 they came from a pig pen, so let them go back to their pig pen.
Those words pleased the Rabbi very much. But when other Jews found out that he had talked to a disciple of Yeshua, they arrested him and charged him with renouncing his Jewish faith. He was accused of going against what the Scriptures had to say about staying far away from her – which refers to a prostitute – and do not go near to the door of her house,9 — which refers to the ruling power10.11
There is nothing in Paul’s testimony about his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus,12 nor in his visions while out in the desert13 to suggest that our Lord instructed him on things pertaining to a Christian’s mindset toward civilian government. However, Paul must have been aware of Jesus’ teaching on paying taxes.14 But respect for authority was already part of Jewish customs and manners from the days of Moses.15
Perhaps this is why Paul already had this in his thinking when he wrote Timothy: “I ask you to pray much for all men and to give thanks for them. Pray for kings and all others who are in power over us so we might live quiet God-like lives in peace.”16 This was also on Paul’s mind when he wrote Titus: “Remind people to submit to the government and its officials, to obey them, to be ready to do any honorable kind of work.”17 Today we can equate this to jury duty, service in the military, and volunteer work such as the Peace Corp. Paul wasn’t the only one, the Apostle Peter also advised his readers: “Obey the head leader of your country and all other leaders over you. This pleases the Lord. Obey the men who work for them. God sends them to punish those who do wrong and to show respect to those who do right.”18
Again in the Talmud, we read what the Rabbis taught on God’s approval of those He allows to rule or reign. They told how when Rabbi Jose ben Kisma was ill, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion went to visit him. He said to him: “Brother Hanina, don’t you know that God ordained this Roman nation to reign? For even though they tore down His buildings, burnt His Temple, murdered His devoted ministers and caused His most dedicated servants to perish, still, the Romans continue in power!”19 In other words, in spite of the fact that the Romans tore down the Temple and killed many of the priests and Levites, yet the Jews acknowledged that God had nevertheless placed them in power.
Paul’s call to respect the nation’s leaders was based on the concept that God was in control of the earth and was the One who could approve power and take away power from those chosen to lead. For instance, in one of Asaph’s Psalms we read: “You will not be raised to power by those in the east, the west or the desert; since God is the judge; and it is He who puts down one and lifts up another.”20 And Solomon credits Wisdom with saying: “By me kings reign, and princes make just Laws. By me princes govern, nobles too, and all the earth’s rulers.”21
The prophet Jeremiah recognized this divine power to appoint the nation’s leaders when God said to him: “By My great power and by My long arm I will give it to the one who is right in My eyes. That’s why I have given all these lands to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant.”22 Daniel confirms this by saying: “Let the name of God be honored forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to Him. He changes the times and the years. He takes kings away, and puts kings in power.”23
This same thinking of those in leadership, even civilian governments, were there by divine appointment was expressed elsewhere in Jewish writings. For instance, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha taught that one should not take their shirt from the hand of their attendant when dressing in the morning. In other words, let them lay it down and then you pick it up. He said that he received these instructions from Suriel the Officer of the [Divine] Presence, who is identified by Jewish scholars as a demonic angel or messenger of high rank.24 This more or less indicates that authorities were evil and their warnings were to advise you that if you disobeyed their prohibitions they were ready to hurt and punish you. But it wasn’t just those in highest authority, In response to 1 Chronicles 29:11, Rabbi Hanan ben Raba once said that according to one Jewish teacher, even the Superintendent of a Well is appointed in heaven.25 This is corroborated by an entry in German Hebraic scholar Johann Buxtorf’s writings where he quoted: “Nulla potestas est nisi à Deo, quae Dei sunt potestates, sunt à Deo ordinata.” (There is no power but of God, of which the authorities are established by God).26
Later on, well-known Rabbi Rashi would comment on the same text: “Yours is the kingdom and [You are He] Who is exalted over everything as the Leader.” In other words, if a flesh and blood king promotes one of his servants to a position of leadership in his kingdom under one of the princes, he still remains his servant wherever he is. The same goes for the Holy One, blessed be He – the servant appointed to rule is His, and also the kingdom is His. For even the superintendent of the city well is appointed from heaven.27 This is simply the Hebraic way of saying that no matter who appoints who as their subordinate, nor how long the list may grow, in the end they are all subordinate to God who approved their appointment.
1 Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Ch. 1:10
2 Ibid., Ch. 2:3
3 Cf. Isaiah 23:16; Jeremiah 3:6; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 4:15; Revelation 17
4 Sepphoris is “perched like a bird” on a 400-foot hill that overlooks the Bet Netofa Valley and helps to explain its other Hebrew name, Zippori (bird). From this panoramic view of Lower Galilee one can survey Nazareth and Cana as Antipas did, and even imagine Jesus walking to work with His father every day. Perhaps it even inspired Matthew 5:14 when He said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
5 This Jacob may have been either James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18) or James the Little (Mark 15:40)
6 Deuteronomy 13:19
7 This may have been a reference to the high priest who spent the whole night preceding the Day of Atonement in the precincts of the Temple, where due provision had to be made for all his conveniences by the government.
8 Micah 1:7
9 Proverbs 5:8
10 That is, the government
11 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 17a
12 See Acts of the Apostles, Ch. 9
13 Galatians 1:16-24
14 Matthew 17:24-27; 22:15-22
15 Deuteronomy 17:12
161 Timothy 2:1-2
17 Titus 3:1
18 1 Peter 2:13-14
19 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 18a
20 Psalm 75:6-7 – Complete Jewish Bible
21 Proverbs 8:15-16
22 Jeremiah 27:5-6
23 Daniel 2:20-21
24 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachot, folio 51a
25 Ibid., Seder Nezekin, Masekhet Bava Bathra, folio 91b
26 Johannis Buxtorf: Florilegium Hebraicum: Continens Elegantes Sententias, Proverbia, Apophthegmata, Similitudines, Basileæ, Impensis Hæred, Ludovici König, 1649, Magistratus, p. 178
27 The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, Divrey Hayamim I (1 Chronicles) 29:11