NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson V)
Bible scholar John Stott notes that after calling for submission to the government, Paul now warns against rebellion, since rebels are not only setting themselves against what God has instituted (verse 2a) but in addition will bring judgment on themselves (verse 2b). As a consequence, it is both right and wise to live in harmony with civil law. Rulers should hold no terror for those who do right but only for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. The statement that rulers commend those who do right and punish those who do wrong is, of course, not always true, as Paul knew perfectly well. Although he had himself experienced from procurators and centurions the benefits of Roman justice, he also knew about the miscarriage of justice in the condemnation of Jesus. And if all provincial courts were fair and just, he would not have needed to appeal to Caesar. So, in depicting rulers in such a good light, as commending the right and opposing the wrong, he is stating the divine ideal, not the human reality.1
Verse 3: People who do right don’t have to fear those who enforce the Laws. But those who do wrong must fear them. Do you want to be free from fearing them? Then simply do what is right, and they will be proud of you.
Paul had an interesting way of saying the same thing in his letter to Timothy: “For the Law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are Lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy.”2 It can be logically stated that those who place radar detectors on the dashboards of their car do so with the intent on breaking the Law. The person who is staying within the speed limit has nothing to fear. Solomon felt the need to tell people that the same principle is at work in government as well: “The king’s favor is toward a servant with good sense, but his disfavor is quickly shown to the servant who embarrasses him.”3
Paul was not inventing a new idea here. This concept was already part of Jewish thinking. For instance, we read what venerated Rabbi Judah taught that any communal leader who makes himself unduly feared by the community for purposes other than religious will never have a scholar for a son, as it says, “Therefore, if men fear him he shall not see [among his sons] any wise of heart.4”5 And Rabbi Chanina made the statement that people should pray for the integrity of their government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a rich neighbor could get rid of their poor neighbor without any consequences.6 So we could say that respect and reverence for the authority and power of God does not always mean to be fearful for what He can do through the power of nature or by way of miracles and wonders, but that which He displays through those in authority that serve by His permission.
Bishop Basil reiterates what has been said previously in so far as obeying secular Law is concerned. He feels that it is proper to submit to higher authority whenever a command of God is not violated in the process.7 And Ambrosiaster comments on what he sees as the job of every governing authority. They have been created in order to correct behavior and prevent bad things from happening. They mirror the image of God because everyone else is under one leader.8
Then Augustine concludes that when doing what is right it will bring praise from God even if you get no applause from your fellow humans. But Augustine does admit, that what Paul says here could easily upset some people when they think that Christians have often suffered persecution at the hands of these authorities. They argue that these Christians were living lawful lives but not only did the authorities not praise them they punished and killed them! So the Apostle Paul’s words must be carefully examined. He does not say: “Do what is good and the authorities will praise you,” but: “Do what is good and you will have praise from God.” So whether someone in authority praises you for what you do or persecutes you, “you will have praise from God,” either when you win your freedom by your perseverance in obedience to God or when you win your crown by being persecuted for your obedience to God.9
And Pelagius notes that for Christians there should be no fear of authorities. It is the lawbreakers who should be afraid of the authorities, but the law-abiding have no reason to fear, for they come into glory if they are killed unjustly. So Paul wants the Romans to take his advice and they will never need to be afraid of those who enforce the law. After all, condemnation of the wicked is in itself commendation of the good10.11 In other words, as Law abiding Christians we do not hide or cringe in fear of those in power because we do and say what is right according to the Law. But if for some reason, we find ourselves living under a tyrant who persecutes and even kills us because we are Christians, then we also need not be afraid because God will crown us with honor because we died for His glory.
Martin Luther made the statement that we should complement rulers who do not keep us from doing what is right.12 Fellow reformist John Calvin agrees, saying that the Lord has designed things in this manner to provide for the tranquility of the good and restraint for the waywardness of the sinner. Calvin then advises that since this is the only remedy by which mankind can be preserved from destruction, we should certainly take notice so that we do not end up being public enemies of the human race. In fact, Calvin says that whenever a believer begins to dislike the magistrate it may be because he or she may be up to some mischief. Calvin goes on to encourage everyone to continue honoring the good God has shared with us through government but be careful not to contaminate it with any manipulative motives we may have. That’s why Paul teaches us the purpose for which magistrates are instituted by the Lord. We should not, therefore, do anything contrary so that so noble an institution becomes marred because of our noncooperation. At the same time, princes who may be prone to abusing their power by harassing the good and innocent, must not become so tyrannical that they totally eliminate anything that does not some respects assist in keeping law and order in society.13
As Charles Hodge sees it, verse 3 is not to be connected with the verse 2 but with the verse 1, because it assigns an additional reason for the duty listed there. Magistrates are to be obeyed, for such is the will of God that they are appointed to repress evil and promote good. There is a good reason then, that the very nature of their office should keep us from resisting them. That is, government is not an evil to be feared, except by evildoers. Since magistrates are appointed for the punishment of wrongdoing, the way to avoid being the target of their authority is not to resist it, but to do that which is good. Paul is speaking of the legitimate design of government, not of the abuse of power by wicked rulers.14
Verse 4: For those in authority are God’s servants to help you. But if you do wrong, you have reason to be afraid. For they have the power to punish, and they will use it. For they are God’s servants to take revenge on those who commit a crime.
Now Paul goes even further to state that God may use people in authority to punish those who do wrong and violate His statutes. In fact, the queen of Sheba told Solomon: “Because of Adonai’s eternal love for Isra’el, He has made you king, to administer judgment and justice fairly.”15 And King of Judah Jehoshaphat had this message for his justices: “Think about what you are doing: you are not dispensing justice by merely human standards but on behalf of Adonai; He is with you when you deliver a verdict.”16 And Lemuel, king of Massa, was told by his mother: “Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, for the rights of all who need an advocate. Speak up, judge righteously, defend the cause of the poor and the needy.”17 We certainly see some of this today in our own judicial and penal system.
As early church scholars continued to digest what Paul is saying here about a Christian’s responsibility to live in accordance with the Laws of the land and respect authority, they give their responses. Ambrosiaster likens these secular rulers as tutors for believers. As Ambrosiaster sees it, since God ordained that there will be a future judgment and He does not want anyone to perish, that’s why He ordained rulers in this world who, by causing people to be afraid of them, act as tutors to mankind, teaching them what to do in order to avoid future punishment.18 And Chrysostom believes that learning to live under civil rule makes virtue easier for the Christian by seeing lawbreakers punished for disobedience and seeing the law-abiding rewarded because they do what is right, thereby working together with the will of God. For this reason magistrates are called God’s servants, even when they administer punishment, for it is God’s will they are carrying out.19
Then Augustine believes that Paul is advocating that the person placed in authority is God’s servant for the believer’s good, although his intentions may be grievous.20 And Constantius echoes the same thought. He too accepts the idea that the appointed ruler is God’s servant for the believer’s good. Paul shows that we must obey the authorities in those things which are right but not in things which are unlawful or which go against our faith.21 And Pelagius writes that authorities are concerned for your safety. They also have the responsibility to see to it that if you break the law you do not profit from it because God does not love the ungodly and despises all who plan evil deeds22.23
1 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 1 Timothy 1:9 – New Living Translation
3 Proverbs 14:35; cf. 20:2
4 Job 37:24 – It is obvious that Rabbi Judah is either quoting from an older Hebrew manuscript, or using this scripture to make a point. The Hebrew actually reads: “Therefore, they fear Him (speaking of God): He respects no mortal [that are] wise of heart [egotistical].”
5 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Rosh Hashanna, folio 17a
6 Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Ch. 3:2
7 Basil the Great: The Morals 79.1
8 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Augustine on Romans 73: P. F. Landes, ed. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982
10 See 1 Peter 2:14
11 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 181
13 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 632
15 1 Kings 10:9 – Complete Jewish Bible
16 2 Chronicles 19:6 – CJB
17 Proverbs 31:8-9
18 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23
20 Augustine on Romans, op. cit. 73
21 [Psuedo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 See Psalm 5:6
23 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.