We just finished studying Romans 12, which teaches how to live as living sacrifices while having our minds transformed from our carnal minds to “discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (vv 1-2). We aren’t to think more highly of ourselves, but to understand that God has given each of us gifts to use for His glory because we are each a part of the whole (vv 3-8). And then we are told specifically how we are to live out our lives in service to the Lord (Rom 12:9-21).
The overwhelming message of Romans 12 is that Christians are supposed to be people of peace. With this in mind, we come to the next chapter. When this letter was written Jews had endured temporary expulsion by the Roman government, slaves were in danger of execution if their masters were killed, and citizens were subject to the exploits of tax collectors. It was around this time, with the backdrop of ten years of murders, adulteries, and injustices by the rulers of the Roman Empire, that the Christians in Rome received a letter from the apostle Paul which said in part:
“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.” (Rom 13:1-7)
That’s a tough message in light of a murderous government in charge. But if we look back at some choice verses from Chpt 12, we are reminded of who God says we are as His people: We are “patient in affliction” (vs 12); We are a people who “bless and do not curse” those who persecute us (v 14); We “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (vs. 17), instead we feed and give drink to our enemies (v 20). And we are to pay special attention to God’s Word: “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay’, says the Lord.” (v 19)
Vengeance belongs to the Lord and we should “NEVER” take part in avenging ourselves. That’s our calling and how we present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. As soon as Paul says not to take part in avenging themselves, he says there is “an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong” (Rom 13:4). God’s avenger may be the most unlikely creature on earth–the Roman governing authorities. In spite of Rome’s wickedness and evil, Paul said they actually serve a God-ordained purpose. And because they serve a God-ordained purpose, Christians should be subject to their authority (Rom 13:1).
The empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia were all incredibly wicked, but they were also used by God to carry out His divine purpose. They were not God’s people. God did not command or condone their wickedness, but He allowed their wickedness to serve His purposes. God was doing the same with the Roman Empire. Indeed, God does the same with every nation of mankind. Keep in mind that this passage was written to Christians, whose true citizenship was not to Rome but to heaven. The application is spelled out clearly: Christians living in Rome were to pay their taxes and not resist the government’s authority, even if they were killed for their submission.
The application for modern Christians isn’t much different than it was in the first century. Our citizenship is heavenly, not earthly. We are still called to be peacemakers. We are still called to love our enemies by giving them food and drink. We are still called to overcome evil with good. We are still called to submit and pay our taxes, since we know that all authority is instituted by God. Our calling, like the calling of our first-century brethren, is to take up our cross and leave vengeance to God, and to show the world the difference that Christ has made in our lives so that we can “live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18), while we trust in God.