Dr. Robert R. Seyda



With this in mind, we should not be surprised how Jesus responded to Pilate at His trial when Pilate charged Him: “You refuse to speak to me? Don’t you understand that it is in my power either to set you free or to have you executed on the stake” Yeshua answered, “You would have no power over me if it hadn’t been given to you from above.”1 So it is no wonder then that in the letter given to John for the seven churches in Asia we find these words: “Jesus Christ is the first to be raised from the dead. He is the head over all the kings of the earth.2 This was confirmed when John later saw the rider on the white horse and reported: “On His coat and on His leg is the name written, “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.3

Early church scholars struggled with Paul’s encouragement to support the government that God allowed to rule over them. Origen asked what Paul meant when he says, “There is no authority except from God?” Can it be that an authority which persecutes the children of God, which attacks the faith and which undermines our religion, be from God? Then he goes on to say that God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, even if they used the powers they received to satisfy their own godless ideology and not according to the Laws of God.4 I don’t believe that Paul was giving any evil empire the right to claim their authority was from God and so they could do as they pleased. Paul was talking about the structure of government and the administrative process by which law and order was enforced to the welfare of its citizens, not those who corrupt it and turn it into a dictatorship.

Then early church scholar Apollinaris looks at it from another angle. He mentions that Sanhedrin leader Gamaliel tells us that Judas the Galilean revolted during the time of the first census and led a band of zealots in a revolt,5 refusing to obey the order of the Romans and register their goods, for which reason Quirinius had been sent to Syria. But Judas’ decision to rebel was the cause of domestic murders and of a insurrection against the authorities did much harm to the people. It seemed to Apollinaris that here the Apostle is condemning any attempt to imitate Judas based on the illusion that it is a godly thing to disobey rulers. He has a good deal to say about this, condemning it as a mistaken way of thinking.6

Also, Ambrosiaster looks at Sacred Law as a tutor for Secular Law. He notes that Paul has already ordered that Heavenly Law be followed with allegiance, so now he commends Earthly Law as well, so as not to appear to be disrespectful. For if Earthly Law is not kept, then Heavenly Law will not be kept. Earthly Law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of holy living. For mercy cannot be imputed to anyone who does not seek to live a more righteous life. Therefore, in order to back up the authority and fear of the natural Law, Paul bears witness to the fact that God is the author of both and that the ministers of the Earthly Law have God’s permission to act, so that no one should despise it as a merely human construction. In effect, Paul sees the divine Law as being delegated to human authorities.7

Chrysostom also sees reasons why Christians should be good citizens. He notes that Paul has a good deal to say on this matter in his other epistles, placing subjects under their rulers in the same way that household servants are under their masters. He does this to show that Christ did not introduce His Laws for the purpose of undermining the state but rather so that it should be better governed. He does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself. For there should be rulers and those who are ruled so that things do not spiral into anarchy with the people swinging like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. The principle of government is the work of God’s wisdom.8

And Bishop Theodoret subscribes to Paul’s precept so long as the believer’s obedience to secular authority is done with a good attitude. For if earthly rulers demand something which is ungodly, then no believer should be forced to obey them. The Apostle teaches us that both authorities and obedience depend entirely on God’s providence, but he does not say that God has specifically appointed one person or another to exercise that authority. For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself. Since God wants sinners to be punished for their evil deeds, even if it means tolerating terrible rulers.9

Martin Luther has quite a bit to say about Paul’s words here. He especially notes that Paul puts the burden of complying with respect for authority on every human being by using the Greek noun psychē which Thayer cites as meaning “every soul, or every one.” Luther sees this as distinguished from the body because such respect must come from the heart because the soul is between the body and the mind. As Luther sees it, Christians are dual beings, much like Christ was both divine and human. In the believer’s case, they are in Christ while still being human. As such, a Christian can exercise spiritual power as well as physical power.

As Paul wrote the Corinthians: “As a Christian, do not be proud of men and of what they can do. All things belong to you… The world and life and death belong to you. Things now and things to come belong to you. You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.1011 While Jesus was on earth, He subjected Himself to earthly authority as well as to the divine authority of His Father. It is understood that when earthly authority demands what divine authority does not approve of, divine authority prevails.

John Calvin looks first at how Paul’s words may have affected the Jews in the Roman congregation. For Calvin, Paul handled this subject very carefully when applying it to the way Christians should live their lives. No doubt he was forced to do so because of the anti-Christian spirit that was prevalent in that age, even though the preaching of the Gospel will at times cause such a negative reaction. Unfortunately, there were some believers in the Church who insist that the Kingdom of Christ would never reach its full potential until, and unless, all government powers over religion are abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by Christ until they shake off every yoke of human subjection. This was another way of believing that the government could legislate righteousness.

Calvin also notes that this way of thinking occupied the minds of the Jewish Christians above all others. For it seemed to them disgraceful that the offspring of Abraham, whose kingdom flourished before the Redeemer’s coming, should now, after His appearance, continue in submission to another power. There was also another thing which alienated the Jews no less than the Gentiles from their rulers in that some rulers not only hated righteous people but also persecuted religion with the most hostile feelings. Hence it seemed unreasonable to acknowledge them as legitimate kings, princes, and rulers who continued to attempt to deny Christ, the only Lord of heaven and of earth so that His kingdom here on earth could not flourish.

Then Calvin speaks of a believer’ responsibility to remain subject to appointed or elected magistrates because they are established by God’s ordination. For since it pleased God to govern the world this way, anyone who attempts to alter God’s instructions is resisting God Himself. This is nothing less than anti-authoritarian ideology denying God’s authority since to despise the guardianship of Him who is the founder of civil power, is to be at war with Him. Calvin wanted his readers to understand that all power is from God. But He has also given human governments the power to rule in a legitimate and fair way in the world.

Furthermore, God can either permit or stop all plagues, famines, wars, and other disasters caused by human error, He can also bring to an end tyrannical governments who exercise unjust power that bring about disorder and chaos because they are not an ordained government. The right to govern is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. This means, that there are times when a nation goes to war or institutes severe laws as a remedy for lawlessness. So the Apostle Paul commands that we willingly and cheerfully respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates as useful to mankind.12

John Bengel sees Paul’s writing to the Romans, whose city was the seat of an empire, on the subject of human government as a way to show how God’s kingdom should work in harmony with earthly kingdoms in keeping law and order by being obedient citizens. Bengel believes this, too, may have been the reason why Paul, in this long epistle, used the phrase, “the kingdom of God,” only once in verse 17. Every individual should be under the authority of the magistrate, and be liable to suffer punishment if they have broken the law. And another thing that Bengel noted is that in Romans 12:1, Paul speaks of presenting our bodies to God for service. But here in 13:1, Paul uses the Greek noun psychē which the KJV translates as “soul,” as that which should be subject to higher powers both in heaven and on earth. After all, it is the soul and its sinful tendencies that cause the body to do wrong. In the same way, the body will not break the law on its own, it must be guided by the soul to do so.13

Adam Clarke has written a long narrative on this first verse as well. Rather than what Paul says here is his personal thoughts, Clarke is convinced that he was sharing the mind of God on such an important subject that could affect peace in the world instead of it targeting one class of people, Clarke says that it belongs to every soul in every situation on all occasions. Clarke wonders what is it that Paul wants all of us to seriously understand? It is this: Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. Let every person be obedient to the civil government upon which God has given His stamp of approval?14 So just like the Hebrews who suffered in Egypt and later in Babylon and Persia, the despots who were in control did not know it but they were carrying out God’s plan for His people. The same can be said of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jung-un, etc.

1 John 19:10-11 – Complete Jewish Bible

2 Revelation 1:5

3 Ibid. 19:16

4 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

5 See Judas the Galilean in the Jewish Encyclopedia. It occurred around 6 – 7 AD, at the time Jesus was born.

6 Apollinaris of Laodicea: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

7 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23

9 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. Cit., loc. cit.

10 1 Corinthians 3:21-23

11 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 180

12 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

13 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 346

14 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 253

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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