Have you ever been wronged by someone? Have you ever disagreed with the laws or decrees of your local community or the state in which you live? Almost everyone has likely experienced at least one of these scenarios at some point. In Romans 13, Paul reminds the Christians in Rome how to conduct themselves, forgive others, and find ultimate peace through Jesus Christ.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
Paul’s Letter to the Romans addresses the behavior of the Christian in a fascinating order. In the chapter preceding this weekend’s reading, the apostle lists the marks of a true Christian, which can be summarized as showing love for others, embracing humility, and avoiding revenge for wrongs suffered. This flows logically into this week’s reading, in which Paul admonishes Christians to submit to governing authorities.
Interestingly, the apostle positions obedience to the Lord as the foundation of submission to governing authorities. In other words, if the rules do not oblige Christians to violate conscience, those who live per God’s design will coexist with earthly rulers as a matter of course. Verse five encapsulates this: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
The attending Old Testament Reading from Ezekiel reinforces this by advocating for those in spiritual authority. The Lord speaks to the prophet: “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from My mouth, you shall give them warning from Me” (33:7). Those who shepherd Christians, notably pastors, bear the weight of guiding Christians toward obedience to God, which equips the Lord’s children for a harmonious life with civil authorities.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus equates greatness in the kingdom of heaven with a childlike nature, as He draws a little one into His midst. Implicitly, greatness in this world is not something to be desired. Instead, living as children of God enables us to live as grown men and women on earth—wise as serpents but gentle as doves.
Digging Out the Gems
In verse one of the passage from Romans, Paul writes, “Those that exist have been instituted by God” (emphasis added). This is translated from τεταγμέναι, a perfect passive verb referring to the governing authorities. The form is notable, first, in that perfect verbs, which express completed events in the past, also indicate an impact on the present. In other words, God’s ordaining of governing authorities is binding for the present into perpetuity. Second, the passive form indicates that God is the actor. The offices of oversight that the Lord has ordained did not establish themselves. As God has set them in place, they bear the Almighty’s importance and strength.
In Romans 13:1–10, Paul uses the Greek πληρόω, which the ESV translates as “fulfill.” Notably, John uses a different word that can also be translated “fulfilled” in 19:28. He chooses τελέω. Whereas both Greek words can be translated “fulfilled,” τελέω points to completion or finishing. Jesus not only fulfills the Scripture, He exceptionally finishes His work of salvation on the cross.
Law and Gospel
Regarding the Law, there are two levels of disobedience: that against civil authorities and that against God. As it pertains to earthly offices of oversight, which God has ordained, obedience is both a First and a Fourth Commandment issue. We submit to governing authorities but only to the extent that these allow and support God’s Law. Where there is disharmony between the two, we defer to God’s Law regardless of consequence. Moreover, where a Christian has offended the civil law and is deserving of earthly punishment, God’s child accepts this censure even though he is absolved by God in Christ.
More importantly, the one who has transgressed civil law does well to remember that he or she has first and foremost offended God Almighty. As such, his or her primary concern is Confession and Absolution. In this peace with God through Christ and sanctifying training of the Holy Spirit, he or she is better equipped to live within the God-pleasing law of governing authorities.
The Gospel application is Christ’s fulfillment and completion of the Law. Where sinners disobey both God and His earthly authorities, Christ obeys perfectly on man’s behalf. It’s important to note that Jesus did this having taken on human flesh. Whereas the first one to wear human flesh, Adam, failed to fulfill God’s expectations, the Second Adam, Jesus, wears sinless human flesh and restores sinners.
Discernment of God’s Law in relation to civil authority is especially applicable in our present context. Engaging with the government’s involvement in increasing racial division and the encroachment of the authorities upon worship constitutes challenging opportunities for practice. Regardless of our success or missteps in discernment or actions, however, we have a Savior who fulfilled and completed obedience to the Law perfectly in our place.
To read more on how to live out your faith alongside your political beliefs while upholding Law and Gospel, read the Summer 2020 edition of Lutheran Life.