Romans Chapter 13 Commentary – Submission to Government

Let’s continue in our series through the book of Romans. As we dive into this passage, we find ourselves at a pivotal juncture—Romans Chapter 13. But before we unravel its meaning, let’s rewind a bit.

In the earlier chapters, the apostle Paul meticulously laid out the foundations of Christian doctrine, from the desperate need for salvation in Chapters 1-3 to the profound insights on grace in Chapters 5-8. However, as we venture into Chapter 12, a subtle yet significant shift occurs.

Here, Paul pivots from the weighty doctrines to something equally profound—our duty as children of God. It’s as if he’s saying, “Now that we’ve established what God has done for us, let’s explore what we are called to do in response.”  Romans Chapter 12 flows seamlessly into the 13th, where Paul’s words on submission to governing authorities spark some deeper questions. But what does it all mean? How do these verses resonate with our lives today?

Let’s unpack Romans 13, and explore its historical context, its relevance to our daily lives, and the timeless wisdom it offers. 

Romans Chapter 13 Commentary

Let’s walk through Romans 13 verse by verse. I’ll share my own thoughts and commentary as we go.

Romans 13:1-7 – Submission to Authority

In this first section, the apostle Paul discusses the importance of submitting to governing authorities as obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Verse 1

Romans 13:1

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1 ESV)

Here, Paul reminds us of the importance of submitting to the authorities placed over us. 

The greek word for “be subject” means: to arrange under, to put under, to obey. 

Whether it’s the civil government, our employers, or leaders in our communities, God calls us to honor and respect their authority. Why? Because ultimately, all authority comes from God Himself. 

When we submit to those in authority, we demonstrate our trust in the ordinance of God and His sovereignty. 

But wait, what about authorities that do not govern righteously? 

We’ll get to that in a minute.

Verse 2-4

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Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good behavior, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval. For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:2-4 ESV)

Paul’s words carry weight. When we rebel against authority, we’re not just defying human government; we’re challenging higher powers. 

Authorities serve a divine purpose ordained by God Himself. They are called to maintain order, protect the innocent, and uphold justice. 

However, this doesn’t mean blind obedience to unjust laws or civil powers. God’s design for authority is to promote good works and restrain evil.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. – 1 Peter 2:13-14

So this begs the question – when is it ok to disobey authority? Is civil disobedience ever ok?

Throughout history, there have been numerous instances where individuals faced the challenging decision of obeying civil authority or adhering to their faith in God.

  • Moses: Despite the Pharaoh’s command to keep the Israelites in bondage, Moses followed God’s instructions to demand their freedom, eventually leading to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
  • Midwives in Egypt: These women were ordered by Pharoah to kill the Hebrew baby boys in an attempt to keep the nation of Israel from becoming to mighty. These woman refused and instead lied to the authorities by saying that the Israelite women were too strong and having their babies before the midwives could arrive to deliver them.
  • Rahab: Rahab sent away the king’s soldiers to protect and hide the Israelite spies.
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: These three Hebrew men, serving in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, refused to bow down to the golden image erected by the king. Despite the king’s decree threatening death in a fiery furnace for disobedience, they remained steadfast in their worship of God, trusting in His deliverance. 
  • Daniel: Daniel faced the dilemma of obeying the king’s decree to pray only to him or remaining faithful to his practice of praying to God. Despite the threat of being thrown into a den of lions, Daniel continued to pray openly to God, refusing to compromise his faith. 
  • Peter and John: In the New Testament, the apostles Peter and John faced opposition from the religious authorities of their time, who ordered them to stop preaching about Jesus. In defiance of this command, they boldly proclaimed the gospel, declaring, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29, NIV). 
  • Paul: Despite facing imprisonment, beatings, and threats to his life, Paul continued to preach the gospel fearlessly, prioritizing his obedience to God’s calling above all else. 

There is a time and place to disobey authority. We must prioritize obedience to God over obedience to human authority when the two are in opposition.

Romans Chapter 13:5

“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (Romans 13:5 ESV)

Obedience isn’t just about the fear of punishment; it’s about living with a clear conscience before God. When we submit to authority, we honor God’s design for order and peace. 

Verse 6-7

“For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:6-7 ESV)

Paying taxes and fulfilling civic duties may not always be glamorous, but they are part of our responsibility as good citizens of both earthly kingdoms and the kingdom of God. By contributing to society, we participate in God’s plan for the common good. 

We must remember to show honor and respect to those in authority, recognizing their God-given roles, even to those whose decisions and actions may not align with our ideas and morals. We can disagree with an official’s way of governing while remaining respectful. 

However, we must remember the examples of the people listed above.

We can, and should, pray against and call out evil and injustice. It is not unloving or disrespectful to oppose authorities that promote ideas or agendas that cause harm to another person or that go directly against God’s truth. 

Our definitions of what is harmful and evil must come from God and the Lord Jesus Christ. This area can get really gray if we don’t allow God and His Word to define what is right and wrong. This, I believe is what is causing so much of the division we see in our culture today, and even within the church. Too many different opinions of what is right and wrong. 

Good and evil are defined by God; not man’s opinion – mine or yours.

Romans 13:8-14 – Fulfilling the Law Through Love

In the final section of Romans 13 Paul teaches how love fulfills the law.

Verse 8-10

Romans 13:8

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul shifts our focus from civic responsibilities to our debt of love. Love is the foundation of the kingdom of God, and when we love one another, we naturally fulfill the essence of God’s law. That’s why it’s called the golden rule. Our greatest obligation is to love unconditionally, just as Christ loved us.

We must strive to cultivate a heart of love that reflects God’s own heart toward us.

Love is not just an emotion but a transformative power that guides our actions. When we love, we inherently refrain from harming others, fulfilling the law’s purpose of promoting what is good and righteousness. It also moves us to stand for justice in the face of evil.

Love is directly connected to the command to honor authority because respect and honor are natural by-products of walking in love. 

Verse 11

“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12 ESV)

Paul now teaches his readers why walking in love is so critical. He urges believers to be alert and aware of the times in which they live. Just as dawn signals the end of night, the return of Christ draws closer with each passing moment. We need to maintain a sense of urgency, eagerly anticipating His coming and diligently fulfilling our calling as His disciples. 

Our calling is to love people. 

Love sets us apart and displays our hope in God and His promise of salvation. It’s a hope desperately needed by the lost and broken people around us. 

As children of light, we’re called to live differently from the world around us. The darkness of sin and ignorance has no place in the lives of those who walk in the light of Christ. We must cast off the deeds of darkness and clothe ourselves in the righteousness and purity of Christ, shining brightly for all to see. We must equip ourselves with the full armor of God so we are able to move forward in faith and righteousness for the glory of God.

Romans Chapter 13:13

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Romans 13:13 ESV)

Paul exhorts believers to live with integrity and decency and avoid behaviors associated with darkness. Instead of indulging in sinful pleasures or strife, let’s pursue lives marked by holiness, self-control, and love for one another. Our conduct should reflect the character of our Heavenly Father, drawing others to Him through our example.

Verse 14

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14 ESV)

In this final verse, Paul emphasizes the essence of Christian living: to be clothed in Christ. As we surrender our lives to Him, His righteousness becomes our covering, protecting us from the temptations of the flesh. Let’s guard our hearts and minds against sinful desires, and instead allow Christ to reign supreme in every aspect of our lives.

Today, the application of Romans 13 may look different than it did in the ancient Roman Empire, but its essence remains unchanged. Whether we find ourselves in positions of authority or under the authority of others, we are called to live with integrity, humility, courage, and love.

Let’s carry the lessons of Romans 13 with us as we step into our communities, workplaces, and homes. May we be guided by the understanding that our actions not only reflect our faith but also have the power to impact those around us. And as we seek to live out our duty, let us do so with the knowledge that we are part of a greater narrative, where God’s sovereignty reigns supreme.

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