Romans 13:1-10: The Gift of Government

Appian Way (610x351)The Europeans have an expression: “All roads lead to Rome.” That expression came about because, for many centuries, Rome was the world’s main center of power. And back then, many of the major roads did lead to Rome. That’s what connected Rome to its Empire–its massive set of roadways, many of which still exist to this day.

Originally, those roads spread outward from a single monument in Rome that Caesar Augustus had built. That monument listed the major cities of the Empire and the distances to them. So, standing in Rome, someone could see the extent of the Roman Empire. Roman roads stretched outward. They went to Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. They ran alongside the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates rivers.

But those roadways spoke of more than travel; they spoke of power. For, through those interconnecting roads, Roman officials could go to any district in their Empire. And military units, camping along those roads, reinforced the might of Rome. Those Roman roads testified to the size of the Roman Empire and its vast military might.

That was the Rome in Paul’s day. Rome was the capital of an expansive empire. But soon, that center of power would turn against the Christians. Rome would soon persecute and kill Christians, slaughtered as sport, even as entertainment.

That authority had imprisoned Paul. But even so, Paul still told the Christians in Rome to see God behind their earthly rulers. They were to respect them–not because they were powerful–but because, in some strange way, they were servants of God.

Now, why would Paul even have to write such words to the church in Rome? He had to because in each Christian is not only a saint, but also a full-blown sinner. The old Adam in each of us wants to the rule the roost for himself. The sinner in us doesn’t want to live under God’s rule, and by extension, even the rule of law. Our sinful nature wants to make the rules and choose what it wants.

We can see the old Adam at work even in young children, when they cry out that defiant “no” to a parent’s command. And that “inner brat” is still in us. We’re just better at hiding it. So, don’t think that you ever outgrow being a sinner, for if you think that, then you set yourself up for a fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). Even as baptized believers, we remain sinners to our dying breath, descendants of Adam’s fallen flesh. That’s why God has chosen to give us the gift of government, yes, the GIFT of government.

Government is God’s gift to us, not in the spiritual realm, but in the physical realm. Earlier in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul recognized God’s gift of the Church. The Church is the means through which God proclaims salvation. Through Christ’s Church, God gathers to Himself a people, a people to whom He gives the gift of eternal life. But in Romans, chapter 13, Paul speaks of God’s gift of civil authority.

Government is God’s gift to curb our sin, provide protection, judge disputes, restrain the sinner in each of us, and keep us from violating our neighbor’s peace and liberty. Governmental authorities are masks of God, behind which He works. Governments are what God uses to help keep order and prevent anarchy and chaos in this world.

But know this: The government isn’t a servant of the Gospel. Don’t expect it to preach Jesus into your ears or to forgive your sins. That’s not the government’s role; instead, it’s “God’s servant to carry out His punishment to anyone who does wrong” (Romans 13:4). We call that task the “left hand of God” because the “right hand of God” is where Jesus is interceding for His Church. So, the left hand of God is God working through government; the right hand of God is God working through His Church.

The government is supposed to be God’s servant for the good, rewarding what is good and right. But, of course, since we live in a fallen world, and sinners populate the government, all governments are messed up in one way, or another. But they are still better than anarchy. Just ask the Christians living in Iraq. As hideous of a ruler that Saddam Hussein was, I’m sure they preferred him to what they are now experiencing.

And get this: even if the entire world became Christian, we would still need courts, laws, and police. That’s because we remain–throughout our lives–fully sinners and fully saints. In today’s reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul referred to the governing authorities as God’s servant or minister, not once, but three times! (Romans 13:4, 6)

Now, in the United States, we elect our government officials to exercise this power of God’s left hand. And when our representatives abuse that divine authority, we can get rid of them through the voting booth. Our founding fathers understood the corruption within each of us, and so they created safeguards to help prevent governmental abuse. That’s why we have three branches of government, so each branch can contend with the others, sometimes even to the point of an impasse. It may not be efficient–but it does help keep the government from being able to mistreat its citizens.

At its core, government exists to punish evil, reward good, resolve disputes, keep the peace, and protect the people. God didn’t give government to save us. That’s why Jesus founded His Church.

So, what does the Christian life look like when we consider God’s gift of government? We pay taxes to whom we owe taxes. We give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17). Did you ever think that paying taxes was a spiritual act, a living sacrifice to God? It is. You are to respect those to whom you owe respect and honor those to whom you owe honor.

When we disrespect our governing authorities, we disrespect God, whose authority is behind their authority. In our nation, we have the gift of choosing who governs us. That means we even have a greater responsibility, for one way that we honor and respect those who govern over us is when we elect honorable and respectable representatives to be God’s stewards of such earthly power. So, in the United States, your vocation of citizen even extends into the voting booth.

But living the Christian life and respecting our government extends beyond paying taxes; it also includes prayer. Paul told Pastor Timothy: “I urge you to make petitions, prayers, intercessions, and prayers of thanks for all people, for kings and all who are in authority, so we may live peaceful and quiet lives with all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). And so we pray such prayers every Sunday.

Those who govern need our prayers. It’s not easy to be an instrument of God’s left hand. Pray for our president, our senators and members of Congress, our judges, our governor, and the candidates running for office (the ones you like and even the ones you don’t). Pray for them, whether they are Democrat or Republican. That is your priestly duty. Priests pray; they intercede for others.

When you look at Jesus’ life, He subjected Himself to the government of His day. He obeyed the laws of the land. He honored His stepfather, Joseph, and His mother, Mary, and every earthly authority that was over Him. Jesus did that, for you.

Jesus became a citizen of this world, under an inhospitable government, for you. Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, Rome’s representative, as He was wrongfully charged with treason, for you. Jesus even told Pilate that he had no power over Him, whether to free Him or crucify Him, unless it came “from above,” from God (John 19:11). Jesus was the victim of a brazen miscarriage of justice, which God used for the salvation of the world, for your salvation.

Christianity, following Jesus, does not try to set up a “Christian nation” or a world government the way Islam does. It doesn’t try to create the kingdom of God on earth. Why not? It’s because we, as followers of Jesus, are not of this world, in the same way that Jesus is not of this world (John 17:16).

Our true citizenship is in the City that God builds. We are but temporary residents in this fallen world. We recognize that Jesus is the King of all kings, for only He died and rose to save the world, to save you. We recognize that the Lord of all lords is Jesus, for He now reigns as Lord of heaven and earth.

Like the Israelites living in exile in Babylon, we live as temporary residents. This nation is our temporary home, although we still pray for it and take part in its functioning. We honor and respect our government, and we pay our taxes.

We are to be good citizens, for this is our home away from home. And we know that a day will come, the Last Day, when the kingdoms of this world, including this one, will be no more. On the Last Day, all governments will end. All earthly kings will then bow before the crucified King. Eternity with God is your real home. Don’t lose sight of that.
About this Christian citizenship, the Apostle Peter walked side by side with the Apostle Paul. Listen to what Peter wrote about Christian citizenship:

Because of the Lord, place yourselves under the authority of human governments: whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority or to governors who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For God wants you to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people by doing what is right. Live like free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. Instead, be God’s servants. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the Emperor. [ 1 Peter 2:13-18]

May the Lord grant us good government and wise leaders to exercise authority, so we may live our days in peace, and the Gospel may have free course throughout our land. Amen.